Isaac Levine arrived in the UK from Lithuania as a 17-year-old in 1894. Manfred Gorlin left his home in Nazi-controlled Danzig (now in Poland) and arrived in 1939. As the grandchildren of Jews who found refuge from persecution in the UK, we watch the debate on asylum seekers and migrants and wonder: would they have been welcomed in today’s Britain?
In recent days, Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean as “a swarm.” Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has warned of “marauding migrants” in Calais and of “millions” from Africa threatening Europe’s standard of living.
Faced with the deaths of at least nine people trying to reach the UK from Calais since early June, the UK government has responded with more fences, sniffer dogs, and measures to make it easier for landlords to evict people without a right to stay in the UK. Home Secretary Theresa May had announced in 2012 that the government’s plan was to create “a really hostile environment for illegal migration,” and we’re seeing the results in policies and nasty headlines.
Almost 200,000 men, women, and children have arrived in Europe this year, most from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and rights-abusing Eritrea. Almost 2,000 have lost their lives trying to reach Europe. In an effort to help overwhelmed Greece and Italy, the European Commission urged other EU countries to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers over two years. The UK turned down this plan. Although it upped its refugee resettlement pledge to 2,200, it could do far more. Germany has resettled more than 30,000 Syrians.
“Our experience as refugees is not so distant that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be demonized for seeking safety,” Jewish community leaders wrote to Cameron last week, calling for a response to the refugee crisis that allows people to take safe and legal routes to seek and find protection. Indeed, the language in a Daily Mail article from the 1930s about "German Jews pouring into this country" sounds disturbingly familiar.
Instead of demonizing people seeking protection, UK leaders should listen to the voices of those who also were taken in not so long ago and are now an established part of British identity and diversity. Starting with the prime minister, the UK government should refer to people seeking protection respectfully and accurately, and take a leading role in a humane European response to this crisis.